By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published June 23, 2016
ATLANTA—Five deacons from the Atlanta Archdiocese responded to a papal invitation to deacons worldwide to make a Holy Year of Mercy pilgrimage to Rome May 27-29.
The five, who serve in parishes in Hartwell, Norcross, Atlanta and Marietta, participated in a conference for deacons and attended Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.
Deacon Barry Phillips and his wife, Donna, who serve at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Hartwell, stayed for six days and nights in Rome, visiting Assisi the last day.
“It won’t be my last,” said Deacon Phillips of his first adventure in Italy.
They toured part of the time with Deacon Dominic Saulino and his family, from the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta.
Within hours of arriving May 26, they witnessed a massive Eucharistic procession for the solemnity of Corpus Christi, traveling from the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
“All of the roads were closed,” said Deacon Phillips. When the tour guide said there would be an hour delay, the deacons got off the bus to take a closer look.
“I stood on the side of the road and watched the procession. It was just religious order, after religious order, after religious order,” he said.
The voice of Pope Francis could be heard over loudspeakers, leading each prayer.
Amidst the sea of people, Deacon Saulino’s wife, Judi, spied a familiar face—Deacon Mark Mitchell, of Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, and his wife, Karen, who were also watching the procession.
“Dom just jumped the fence,” said Deacon Mitchell, recalling the surprise reunion. The three deacons were ordained together in 2012 in Atlanta.
Taking in the Corpus Christi procession was a highlight for Deacon Mitchell. The boulevard, wider than Atlanta’s Peachtree Street, was packed with the faithful.
“It was unbelievable. There was Gregorian chant blaring,” the deacon said. “It’s a surreal moment. It really makes you proud to be a Catholic.”
Remembering pope’s act of forgiveness
Deacon Mitchell made another unexpected connection while waiting in a security line at the Vatican, running into Deacon Larry Welsh, of St. Matthew Church, Winder, who was visiting Rome on his way to Dubrovnik and Medjugorje.
“It was a God thing,” said Deacon Mitchell of the meeting.
On May 27, deacons from around the world attended a conference at the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Presenters were Deacon Greg Kandra, of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York; Deacon James Keating, director of theological formation at the Institute of Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska; and Deacon Anthony Gooley, of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia.
Also taking part from the Atlanta Archdiocese were Deacon Hoa Pham of Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, Norcross, and Deacon Greg Smilski of St. Joseph Church, Marietta.
The pilgrimage was also a re-energizing time for the deacons’ wives, who make many family sacrifices so spouses can serve in the diaconate. The Mitchells were celebrating their recent 30th wedding anniversary. The Saulinos were able to rent a car following the jubilee events to visit their family’s ancestral homes in Italy.
At dinnertime, many of the deacons discussed their ministries and ways in which they assist their parish priests.
“It was really nice to get perspectives,” said Deacon Phillips. “We’re blessed in Atlanta.”
Deacon Smilski said that the pilgrimage included some of the best days of his life.
On Saturday, May 28, he and thousands of deacons processed to the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica.
“As we walked past the marble square that indicated where Pope John Paul II was shot on May 13, 1981, I thought of what a powerful image of mercy and forgiveness it symbolized,” said Deacon Smilski in an email. “St. John Paul II visited Ali Agca in prison, the unrepentant assassin, and forgave him. This is the same mercy that God shows us in granting his forgiveness, a powerful thought to contemplate as we walked through the Jubilee Door of Mercy.”
Attending papal Mass
The deacons visited the papal basilicas of St. Peter, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran, and St. Paul Outside-the-Walls. Deacon Phillips and Deacon Saulino were able to serve at Mass in St. Mary Major’s chapel.
Upon returning to Hartwell, Deacon Phillips put together a presentation on the major basilicas for parishioners. He spent several occasions alone in prayer at St. Mary Major, which was located near his hotel.
“It impacted my life,” he said “I really had the basilica to myself.”
He hoped after learning about the saints and martyrs of Rome to teach parishioners more about what the church means.
More than 3,000 deacons vested for the outdoor papal Mass on Sunday, May 29.
“It’s still like a dream,” said Deacon Phillips. “Obviously, there are language barriers. … It was really neat to take it in.”
The Vatican supplied stoles to the thousands of deacons attending which featured the Year of Mercy logo and read “Misericordes sicut pater,” or “Be merciful as your Father is.”
There was no specific order as to how deacons processed into St. Peter’s Square for Mass, but the Georgia deacons were fortunate to be seated at the sides of the altar.
“Our guys were four rows back. It was incredible,” said Deacon Phillips.
The pope’s homily was in Italian, but the deacons later read the translation.
Deacon Mitchell said what spoke to him most was the pope’s challenge to deacons to be ready to serve.
“We always need to be available 24/7,” he said, “even when it’s not convenient and people need you.”
“His time is not his own”
Deacon Smilski, who marked an ordination anniversary while in Rome, was inspired by Pope Francis’ exhortation.
“Our lives changed when we were ordained deacons,” he said. “Our service to others is a total commitment to our life as a deacon and we have a new relationship to the time available to us in our lives.”
“I celebrated my fourth-year anniversary for my ordination while in Rome, and Pope Francis’ message will help me on my diaconate journey,” Deacon Smilski said.
“One who serves cannot hoard his free time; he has to give up the idea of being the master of his day,” said Pope Francis in the homily. “He knows that his time is not his own, but a gift from God which is then offered back to him. Only in this way will it bear fruit.”
“You see St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican on TV and in print, but to be there in person is just a great experience,” said Deacon Saulino. “The most touching moment for me is when the pope elevated the host.”
Following Mass the deacons were able to greet Pope Francis, who was walking around to spend time with as many people as possible.
Deacon Phillips, who describes himself as “vertically-challenged,” stood on a chair in a Zacchaeus-like move to see the pope. He shook hands with the Holy Father.
It’s obvious, said the deacon, that Pope Francis would rather shake hands or receive a hug.
“Everything we see that he is, he is,” said Deacon Phillips. “When someone tries to kiss his ring, he’ll move it.”
Deacon Smilski also shook the pope’s hand. The deacon’s pledge not to wash his hand thereafter only lasted through a few gelato treats.
Deacon Saulino said the appeal of the pope is that he is willing to do the things he asks of others.
“He’s the people’s pope,” said the deacon. “He’s the model. He sets the tone.”